Soccer  

Senegal’s Iliman Ndiaye is a great World Cup story

AL KHOR, Qatar — On Sunday, Iliman Ndiaye lined up alongside his Senegal teammates to sing his country’s anthem and take on England in the round of 16 of the World Cup. While Senegal would lose to their opponents 3-0, all the memories of the three years preceding Sunday’s match flooded into his head and his family’s hearts in the stands. There were tears, but also a lot of pride.

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Despite the Lions of Teranga exiting the World Cup, the Iliman Ndiaye story is still one worth telling — a tale of perseverance, belief, faith and strength. When you are down, when no one believes in you and the path seems blocked, Ndiaye is proof that you can still make it. And despite the loss against England, the young attacking midfielder will never forget the past four weeks or so. For him, this is really just the beginning of something that could take him all the way to the top.

From the English amateur leagues three years ago to the World Cup, football’s biggest stage of all, Ndiaye is the success story. The half-French, half-Senegalese player always believed in destiny when nobody else did.

Born in France 22 years ago, Ndiaye, the only boy in a family of eight, was always seen as a promising talent. He grew up in Rouen, where he started playing futsal for FC Rouen; the local media called him “the next Zizou” (in reference to France legend Zinedine Zidane) because he was so good and so much better than everyone else in his age group. After a tough spell at the Marseille academy, he spent time in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, where his father is from.

Ndiaye’s dad has always been a big influence on him. He was a choreographer and taught his son how to move, except that young Iliman used those skills not to dance, but to dribble. Today, the slickness and elegance of his on-ball skill comes from those early dance lessons. Ndiaye has quick feet, a soft touch and an agility that has made him one of the best dribblers in the Championship, England’s second division, where he plays for Sheffield United.

But the road he took to become a professional player in Sheffield, and then on to the World Cup, was far more complex and exhausting than anything he does on the pitch.

After moving to London at 14 to find a club and try to realise his dream of making it to the top, he played for Boreham Wood FC in England’s fifth division — one step below the English professional leagues — before finding himself without a club. One evening, as he was playing a five-a-side game in London, he was spotted by a coach from the Rising Ballers platform. They have four teams competing in Sunday leagues and help their players who didn’t get into an academy have a second shot at being scouted by professional clubs.

That’s how it finally all happened for Ndiaye. After years of struggles and doubts, he was finally on the right path. Following three seasons with Boreham Wood, the playmaker was signed by Sheffield United in the summer of 2019. Having impressed for their U23 team, he got his chance with the first team on March 14, 2021, signing his first professional contract barely two years after being without a club. His excellent performances with Sheffield United (16 goals in 55 games) ultimately convinced Senegal manager Aliou Cisse to call him up for the World Cup.

“His pathway has been incredible and that has given him a lot of strength. He is so strong mentally. He believes in himself and he works hard,” Boulaye Dia, his Senegal teammate, told ESPN prior to the England match. “He is a really good kid who listens and wants to learn and improve. I am not surprised to see him at this level, in the World Cup. After everything he went through, it is incredible.”

After coming off the bench against Qatar and assisting Bamba Dieng for his side’s third goal in a 3-1 win, his performance against Ecuador from the start was superb. He played as a right midfielder, completing four dribbles out of five, created a chance and did an excellent defensive job on Pervis Estupinan, the Ecuadorian left-back, who is one of his team’s best weapons. “Iliman was fantastic tonight. Because of where he came from, he doesn’t feel any pressure. He goes out there and plays his game,” teammate Idrissa Gueye told ESPN after that 2-1 win. “He was a bit shy the first time he came with us, but now he is showing all his talent.”

He did have a tougher time against England. Ndiaye played just behind Dia, as a hybrid No. 10/second striker and showed great energy again, trying to stop the ball getting to Declan Rice. He wished that he could have impacted the game more with the ball at his feet, but on such a big occasion, he can’t be too disappointed by his performance. After all the sacrifices, this game almost felt like a reward.

“He never gave up,” his first coach at Rouen, Hassan Talani, told ESPN. “He was a little prodigy with a real gift when he was young but he had to find his way. It was tough for him but he never stopped believing working and now he is rewarded.

After years of struggle, Ndiaye shone at the World Cup and showed that this is where he belongs. Some Premier League clubs didn’t have to wait for him to play against Ecuador or England in order to notice his talent. There is a lot of interest around him and it will only increase after the tournament. While Ndiaye is under contract at Sheffield United until June 2024 and is focused is on getting the Blades promoted to the top flight this season, sources tell ESPN that concrete offers could be coming in January.

Whatever happens, you can bet Ndiaye will be confident and ready.